I interviewed a college drop-out who today works as a senior software engineer. By any standard his story is a success story, but he still wants to complete his undergraduate degree.
From an early age he planned on going to college, but life took him in a different direction.
“When I was growing up, I always wanted to be a scientist and I always wanted to go to MIT and I didn’t even question that. I had read a lot of stuff published by people associated with MIT and working with computers and I never really questioned what a nerd I was. That was all before I was a teenager. The experience that I had as a teenager was like total rebellion, and I just started wanting to explore the boundaries of what did I actually have to do or not do. I’m not exactly sure when my focus shifted from wanting to be a scientist to wanting to go to film school.”
His parents were supportive of his pursuit of film and he was accepted into the prestigious film program at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. At the time undergraduate tuition was $45,000 a year. Today, tuition for the 2015-2016 school year is over $52,000.
“A lot of the ways my parents presented this stuff I look at as very optimistic and very aspirational. There was an idea that whatever that shocking price was it would be worth it in a few years. I find that strange now.”
He was working freelance jobs while attending school and had some financial help from his parents, but was barely getting by paying tuition. He lacked extra money for school projects and having peers with much greater resources made it seem impossible to compete.
“I shied away from school because it looked like a massive losing proposition. I went to school with people who could easily pay for that and over $50K budgets for their final projects. Mostly I just realized I wasn’t going to get the most out of it. You can’t get student loans to make your big giant film, people were getting blank checks from their grandparents to do that. I think I was just really insecure about my own position so it felt so oppressive.”
After three semesters he decided to take a leave of absence with the intention of continuing but was already reaping the benefits of his college network.
“I actually feel really satisfied with my college experience. On the one hand, a film degree is a useless thing. I was working in the film industry 5 years after that and was never asked if I got a degree. All of my film-related work came from people I met at NYU, and that is not an industry that advertises in the classifieds.”
After years working in film he decided to go back to his roots working with computers. Today he works as an engineer and makes films in his free time, and still wants to go back to college but this time in the sciences and at an affordable city college.
“As much as I try to rationalize it, there’s definitely some part of me that feels I am this bad thing called a college drop-out.”
Does he believe we can make higher education more affordable for those who want it?
“I believe that if it was part of our ethos as a nation to be well educated, and if we were willing to pay for socialized education, then we could move toward affordable education. I believe there is no competitive capitalist educational system that’s going to be affordable… We definitely live in a country that hates paying for other people’s shit.”